Let’s Go Live: The Rise of Twitch

The future won’t be televised; it will be streamed live on the internet while teenagers troll the chatroom with vulgar images.


While TV institutions like SNL have been the breeding grounds for the stars of today, our next generation of celebrities will rise to fame as professional gamers and internet personalities. Gone are the days when gamers could be pigeon-holed as anti-social neck beards melting into their moms’ sofas. The gamers of today are charming, dynamic personalities and businessmen who understand how to harness their appeal. And Twitch is the platform that elevates them to new heights.

The Amazon-owned streaming site Twitch.tv now boasts 15 million daily active users and 140 million monthly unique viewers watching 2.2 million streamers. While there are other streaming sites, like Youtube and Periscope, their numbers are dwarfed by Twitch. With nearly a million active users at any given moment, Twitch boasts an audience larger than either CNN or MSNBC (as of January 2018). Twitch is live 24/7, and at any given moment, you’ll find some interesting characters streaming to captivated audiences. Think a subway busker mashed with the host of a radio call-in show… now add the familiarity of your best friend.


You may wonder, why anyone would want to just watch someone play a game. (A phenomenon my girlfriend still can’t wrap her head around). The appeal of Twitch (while not for everyone) has many layers: You can watch and admire an entertaining personality displaying his master-level skills; you can communicate with said personality and other viewers via the chatroom; and you can live vicariously through streamers as you do through your favorite professional athletes. For more popular streams, viewers can donate directly to the streamer in order to have a question or message read aloud on stream (an opportunity that is often used for self- promotion).


If video games aren’t your thing, Twitch’s IRL section runs the gamut from strange to creepy to kinky, covering cooking, artwork, and ASMR (just put on your headphones and go see) and much more. Still, the bread and butter of Twitch will always be gaming, and unsurprisingly, the audience numbers reflect a predominantly male viewer base: 81.5% to be precise, with 65% between the ages of 18 and 34. At a time when cable cord-cutting is at an all time high and our media continues to be segmented and tribalized, Twitch has emerged as a dominant force and distinct voice in the new media landscape appealing directly to young men.


Twitch.tv started out as Justin.tv, a site created by Justin (Kim), as a self-made Truman Show, documenting his life and broadcasting it live to an audience. The early site was a mix of streamers like Justin and illegal streams of copyrighted content and events. When I first moved to LA in 2007, the only way to watch my beloved Patriots was by turning on Justin.tv. It then became Twitch and was was acquired by Amazon in 2014 for 1-billion dollars.


Twitch grew in popularity thanks to the integration of Amazon prime benefits, with free in-game offers and free monthly subscriptions. Meanwhile, the rise of battle royale games like H1Z1, PUBG, and eventually Fortnite all emerged with exciting play and the perfect game length (15-30 minutes) to attract new viewers. These games solidified Twitch as an alternative to traditional broadcasts.


The fates aligned on March 14, 2018, when rapper Drake teamed up with Fornite streamer Ninja to play live to over a half million viewers in the middle of the night. It was that night that cemented Twitch’s legitimacy in the landscape of pop culture. Twitch is now (less than a year later) home to several Pro athletes, who have their own streams. Among the most notable players on Twitch are Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics, former NFL player Chad Johnson (Ochocinco), and English soccer player Dele Alli. Musicians like Drake, Lil Yachty, DeadMau5, Travis Scott, and Chance the Rapper have all played with streamers or gone live on their own streams. Former adult entertainers Mia Khalifa and Mia Rose also boast their own streams on Twitch.


With all of this celebrity attention, Twitch has become the new frontier for PR and publicity. For example, as part of PR rollout for the Equalizer 2, Sony sponsored a viewing party with variety streamer CDNthe3rd previewing the first few minutes of the movie live. And when Saban released the updated Power Rangers movie, they promoted it by rerunning the old children’s series 24/7 on a devoted stream.


But there’s no need to be a celebrity or be running a publicity stunt to stream. In truth, virtually anyone can stream on whatever topic they desire. Twitch has content rules that ensure decency, but the rest is up to the streamer. Popular streamer, Dr. Disrespect described (tongue firmly lodged in cheek) what it takes to be a successful streamer on the H3 podcast: “What you need is—obviously—is to be good-looking … [The audience] don’t want to stare at you for 6 or 8 hours. That’s just the fact … Number two: you’ve gotta be an extraordinarily high-level gamer. I mean out of this world. Where people are jaw dropping every time they’re watching.” The logic behind this notion is simple: would you rather watch a minor league baseball game or the World Series? Similar logic holds even when you remove the gaming element: IRL streamers have to be the best at what they do… whatever that is.


Sure, playing video games live on the internet seems like a dream job.But finding success and monetizing Twitch can be a challenge. Of the 2.2 million streams, roughly 1% (27,000) are monetized as “Twitch partnered streams.” For that 1%, viewers are able to support the channel and streamer through a multi-tiered subscription (starting at $4.99 a month and capping at $24.99 a month), through Paypal-linked donations, and through Twitch’s own currency, “bits.” Successful streamers use their social media presence in concert with their streams: their twitter and IG feeds lead into their streams and merchandise sites. Every pixel is devoted to selling the brand; sponsorships flash along with personalized notifications, alerting the stream of incoming support from fellow viewers. Many streamers, including the Twitch top dog Ninja, have business managers, editors, and whole teams devoted to promotion. On the other side of the coin, some streamers have adopted philanthropic causes and will host streams 24-48 hours long as an internet version of telethons.


The rise of big money gaming competitions raise difficult questions for competitive gaming streamers. While they can earn up to six figures in a single event, attending these events can come at a cost for streamers in terms of viewers and ad revenue. Ninja said in an appearance on the H3 Podcast that a 2-day Pro-Am event cost him 40,000 subscribers. In simple math, that’s roughly $100k in subscriber revenue alone.


Gaming communities can extend beyond just a single streamer. Social gaming—games played against and with people across the internet— has seen tremendous growth. Seizing on this phenomenon, Streamers have developed cliques of fellow steamers to play with. And because similar streams inevitably have overlapping communities, Streamers “host” or “raid” each other: as their own stream is ending, they encourage viewers to migrate to a friendly stream and the initial group’s viewers travel to and “raid” another stream. Raiding can itself be a charitable gesture from an established streamer to a smaller streamer.


But this sense of community or group mentality can also come with drawbacks. Interactions with the community aren’t all positive. Streamers encounter harassment in many different forms and to varying degrees. The most innocuous of interferences is known as the “Stream Sniper”, a viewer who games the system in order to match up against a specific streamer and spoil their gameplay. Some streamers have had their personal information broadcast over the internet, a phenomenoncalled “doxxing”. In what is perhaps the most aggressive form of harassment, “SWATing,” trolls call in fake threats posing as their rival toillicit a police response. In December 2017, streamer Andy Finch was killed by police fire after such a call.


Sexual harassment is also an issue on Twitch. Female streamers and viewers are often met with cyber bullying and worse. Female streamers thought to be capitalizing on their sex appeal are labeled “Twitch Thots” (an anagram translated as “That Ho Over There”). On an episode of MTV’s Catfish: Trolls, streamer Miss Mia Rose detailed her struggle to leave her porn past behind thanks to a relentless troll. Meanwhile, a simple session between a male and female streamer can set the internet ablaze with rumors that they’re having sex.


In spite of these issues, streaming can breed a sense of community amongst viewers, creating connection in a medium that’s often associated with disconnection.One minute a streamer will be commiserating with frustrated fans over the greedy developers of a video game; the next minute he’s the voice of reason and support to a depressed viewer. At a time when people are often segmented and tribalized, a video game, or an allegiance to a streamer, can unite thousands of viewers across the world—something that traditional media often fails to do. The sooner you understand Twitch’s ability to bring people together, the sooner you’ll understand its power.


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